Stormhoof & Brianna
Brianna rubbed the big red apple she was carrying against her tunic for the umpteenth time that bright sunny morning. She had buffed the apple so much it sparkled like a giant hand sized ruby. It was a treat for Stormhoof, the grizzled white stag that served her as a mount. Of all the gifts given to her by King Merebros and the elves of Moonleaf Glade, Stormhoof was the one she treasured the most.
She ran ahead of her brothers and sister as she caught sight of Stormhoof being led from his stall by the elf stable hands. She still remembered the day she had chosen him from among all the other deer belonging to the king’s herd. Her siblings had been quick to choose their mounts. Devin and Aidan had immediately bonded with a pair of young bucks named Stomper and Leaper. The bucks had been as energetic as their young riders and they seemed destined for each other. Her older sister Emily had taken a little longer before selecting the stag Mistrunner as her own mount. Brianna had taken the longest of them all. The prancing bucks with their horn filled heads had intimidated her as they towered over the tiny girl. At first she had been hesitant to even approach the bucks, but finally, after much prodding from her siblings she felt comfortable enough to walk among them, tentatively reaching out to stroke their snowy white coats.
That was when she had first seen Stormhoof. For some reason, the moment she had looked into Stormhoof’s deep black eyes her anxieties had fled. The stag had many scars running across his hide and one of his great antlers had been snapped off at the base. His left ear was partially shredded and old scars crisscrossed his chest. He stood gazing at her calmly and when her eyes made contact with his, Brianna had felt an instant bond form. The elven handlers had tried to talk her into a younger buck, telling her that Stormhoof was a veteran mount and had seen many conflicts before his rider had fallen in battle. But Brianna had made her choice. She politely refused their other suggestions and had cautiously approached the one horned stag holding out an apple given to her by one of the handlers.
Stormhoof had slowly trotted over to her, seeming to sense her trepidation before lowering his head and gently nibbling at the apple she had offered him. Brianna had looked deep into his eyes then and knew that they were meant for each other. She had hugged the mount fiercely and from that day forward they were a team. She had carefully saddled him, as she had been shown by the elves and then nervously climbed up onto the saddle. She had grown more and more comfortable with the old stag and soon she was climbing in and out of his saddle with ease.
In the beginning, Brianna and her siblings had been shown how to care for and feed the graceful white bucks. Then they had been instructed in the basic riding techniques. The white stags were very intelligent and seemed to sense ahead of time what their riders intended. They had reins attached to their horns, but they hardly seemed necessary. Brianna had usually just clutched the pommel of her saddle and let Stormhoof go where he would. The stag had always been careful to avoid the low hanging branches of the forest paths they traveled down and he never caused her to lose her balance when they raced across the wide meadows of Moonleaf Glade.
Once the children had mastered the basic riding techniques, Prince Relanor, the son of King Merebros, had begun to teach them more advanced skills. They had been shown how to attack and defend themselves while in the saddle. Eventually they were even taught how to fire their elven bows while mounted. The children were all fast learners and had quickly mastered the technique of shooting arrows into the large wooden targets, but Brianna had been the first to begin bulls-eyeing the small circles painted on the targets. She had also been the one who usually ended up with the most arrows filling her target. Soon all of the children were able to nock an arrow and fire their bows accurately while at full gallop. Brianna emerged as the best archer among the four children, either mounted or on foot, and she had basked in the praises heaped upon her by the elven prince.
Each day of instruction had ended with a race. This became the favorite part of the day for the children. Princess Silori and Ixdee the unicorn would join them and the group would race across the meadows of Moonleaf Glade. It had become quite a spectacle and large groups of elves began to gather daily to witness these races.
At first the children had proceeded slowly, but as their confidence grew so did their ability and the races became true contests. In the early days, it was usually Ixdee or Prince Relanor that would win, but then the children began to finish the race as victors. First it had been Emily on Mistrunner, then Devin on Stomper and finally Aidan on Leaper. Brianna was never quite able to keep up with the leaders, Stormhoof was an older buck and he did not move quite as quickly as the younger bucks. Nor did he have their agility, but the one thing Stormhoof had that none of the other bucks could match was stamina. The old buck could trot for hours and often after the races, Brianna would continue to ride him around the meadows exploring the beautiful sylvan homeland of the elves.
As the races had grown more competitive, Aidan emerged as the best racer. No one could match him and Leaper. The young boy was fearless and threw caution to the winds when he raced. He never slowed nor paused no matter what obstacle appeared before him. Leaper would sail over fallen logs or dodge under low hanging branches at the last minute, the laughing boy clinging to his back. The pair had become almost unbeatable and now the race had been turned into a contest to see who would finish second behind Aidan and Leaper.
Today, Brianna noticed that Princess Silori and Ixdee the unicorn had joined them early. She waved happily at the beautiful elven princess and stroked Ixdee’s glossy white coat as she passed. Then she was standing before Stormhoof.
“I’ve got a present for you,” said Brianna holding the apple behind her back.
Stormhoof tried to peek around Brianna but she turned to block the stags questing snout.
“First you have to do the trick,” said Brianna.
The old stag snorted and trotted backwards.
“Please,” said Brianna. “Just once.”
Stormhoof snorted again.
“Fine,” said Brianna, “maybe I’ll just eat this nice shiny apple myself.”
She brought the apple from behind her back and held it up so the buck could see it. She slowly turned it on her outstretched palm. The morning sun glinted off of the sparkling apple.
Stormhoof seemed to sigh in resignation and then he stood up to his full height. He lifted his snout into the air and arched his neck. He raised his tail high and then he began to prance in a circle, swinging his head left and right as he took each prancing step. After a few circuits he trotted over to Brianna and extended his front hooves and lowered his antlered head in a formal bow.
Brianna squealed with delight and performed her best curtsey, bowing in turn to the majestic creature.
“Isn’t he so cute,” exclaimed Brianna as the other children approached on their mounts.
“Poor Stormhoof,” said her brother Devin. “He’s a mighty warrior. You shouldn’t turn him into a prancing pony show.”
“Leave her alone Dev,” said her sister Emily. “I think it’s cute too and I think he likes doing it, despite his protests.”
Emily appeared to be right, the battle scarred buck was happily nibbling at the apple Brianna held for him and she was clinging to his neck with her free arm, crooning into his ears.
Prince Relanor rode up to the waiting children on his stag Silverhorn. He greeted each of them in turn, his smile growing larger as he came to Emily. It was no secret in Moonleaf Glade that the prince was very fond of Emily. It was also no secret that Emily was just as fond of the prince. She bashfully returned his greeting her cheeks growing red.
Prince Relanor turned to address all of those gathered. “The four of you have learned everything that we have to teach you,” said the Prince. “You’ve been excellent students and are each an accomplished rider in your own right. The only thing you lack now is experience.”
The prince turned in his saddle and indicated two elven rangers standing nearby. “With the assistance of Seron and Filaren, I have devised a course that will challenge your riding ability. Instead of daily riding lessons, we will run this course every day until we have completely mastered it. We will also hold a feast in honor of the daily victor.”
The children and all gathered nearby cheered as the prince announced the new race format.
“So that’s why Ixdee and Princess Silori are here already,” said Brianna.
“Yes,” said Prince Relanor, “they will be joining us.”
The prince removed a rolled up parchment from his belt and opened it wide, holding it up so that all of them could see it. It was a map of the surrounding glades and a dashed line traced a route throughout it.
“As you can see,” said the prince, “I’ve outlined the route on this map. There are a few difficult areas that you should approach with caution,” said the prince casting a quick glance at Aidan, “but for the most part it is a standard course.”
“I’m going to win,” boasted Aidan proudly flexing his small arms.
“So young, so modest,” said Emily raising one eyebrow as she looked at her youngest brother.
“Does modest mean winner?” asked Aidan.
Everyone laughed and Aidan looked confused.
“Modesty is the opposite of how you are acting,” said Emily.
“I still don’t get it,’ said Aidan.
“Never mind,” said Emily, “just try and not brag so much when you win.”
“I don’t brag,” protested Aidan, “I just tell you guys I’m going to win and then I do it.”
Emily sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
“It doesn’t matter if you win,” said Brianna, “as long as you try your best.”
“You are just saying that because you never win,” said Devin. “Everyone knows you like to be first at everything.”
“She’s not first at racing,” said Aidan with a devilish grin.
Brianna gave both of her brothers a menacing frown.
“That’s enough guys,” said Emily. “You are embarrassing me in front of Prince Relanor.”
Brianna and Princess Silori both giggled at her statement.
“What was that for,” asked Emily.
“Nothing,” said Brianna with a conspiratorial wink at the princess.
Prince Relanor cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him.
“If everyone is ready,” said the prince, “we can head over to the starting position.”
Prince Relanor guided Silverhorn down a nearby path and the other riders fell in behind him. Brianna nudged Stormhoof to the front of the group following the prince and cast a quick glance back at the rest of the riders. Aidan immediately coaxed Leaper forward challenging her position and the stags broke into a brisk trot.
“Please,” said the prince, “the race hasn’t begun yet.”
“Tell that to Brianna,” said Devin.
Brianna scowled at Devin but said nothing.
“They are so competitive,” said Emily.
“You like to win too,” said Devin.
“Yes,” said Emily, “but I don’t always have to be first.”
“I’m going to be first anyways,” declared Aidan and then he waited for anyone to deny his claim. There were no comments.
Brianna managed to maintain her place directly behind the prince, despite Aidan’s challenge, and they reached the starting area soon after. They assumed their usual starting positions, with everyone lining up in a row beside Prince Relanor. Ixdee tossed her luxurious red mane high and trotted over to take a spot between Brianna and Aidan. The unicorn often showed motherly tendencies and seemed to instinctively know that the two of them should be kept separate.
Prince Relanor nodded to an elf that stood nearby and the elf nodded back, lifting a wooden horn from his belt.
“Let the race begin on the first note of my horn,” said the elf.
He raised the horn to his lips and a silence descended on the clearing. The spectators crowded around the starting area. The riders leaned forward, gripping the reins of their mounts tightly. Brianna turned to glare at Aidan and he simply smiled back at her. The stags snorted as the anticipation built. The horn blower inhaled deeply and paused. The first note of the horn rang out and the stag riders shot forward like arrows from a bow.
The crowd cheered wildly as the stags sped away from the starting area. Ixdee and Emily on Mistrunner surged into the lead with the rest of the pack following closely behind. The forest became a green blur around the riders as they flew through the meadow and into the trees leading to the next clearing. The riders quickly wove through the thick trunks of oaks in their path with Aidan moving to the front. Aidan rode with reckless abandon and barely slowed to dodge tree branches and trunks. He narrowly missed being knocked from his saddle by a low hanging branch but laughed madly as he clung to the back of Leaper.
“Be careful,” shouted Emily to her little brother but he did not seem to hear her advice or chose to ignore it.
The pack of riders broke into the next clearing. Waiting elves cheered from their seats on the limbs of trees surrounding the clearing. Aidan had gained a slight lead but surprisingly Brianna was following closely behind him. The rest of the racers came behind the two leaders in a tight pack.
Aidan and Brianna plunged into the stand of trees leading to the next meadow. Aidan cast a quick glance over his shoulder clearly surprised to see Brianna following so closely behind. This was a longer race than they usually ran and by now he would often be celebrating his win.
“You won’t catch me,” shouted Aidan.
“I’m not going to catch you,” shouted Brianna, “I’m going to pass you!”
Aidan nearly lost his seat as Leaper jumped over a fallen log in their path. Brianna and Stormhoof sailed over the same log and landed beside Aidan. The two of them exchanged glances as they clutched the necks of their mounts. Stormhoof wove through the obstacles in their path, while Leaper sailed over them. Aidan’s mount began to fall behind as he expended more and more energy jumping over obstacles.
“I always win the races,” shouted Aidan.
“Not today,” shouted Brianna.
The two of them burst into the last clearing and a great cheer went up from the assembled spectators. Stormhoof flew over the grassy turf of the meadow with Leaper following close behind. Brianna let go of Stormhoof’s reins and threw her arms out to her sides and spread them wide like wings, she turned her head up to the sky and closed her eyes. The warm sun bathed her face in a radiant glow and the noise of the crowd faded away. She could clearly hear the sounds of the forest all around her and she felt the breeze flowing through the curls of her long dark hair. Brianna felt like a bird flying through the air as Stormhoof’s leaps and bounds carried her closer to the end of the race.
Time seemed to slow as she opened her eyes and took in the approaching finish line. She looked over her shoulder and saw Aidan frantically racing after her and behind him the rest of the racers breaking into the clearing. She turned back to the finish line and leaned forward hugging Stormhoof as they crossed the line. A loud cheer went up from the gathered elves as she slowed Stormhoof to a trot.
Brianna turned and saw Aidan cross the line behind her. She couldn’t believe it, she had won the race. She had never even finished in the top three before but now she was the champion. The rest of the riders reached the finish line and they crowded around her voicing their congratulations. Brianna beamed at their attention, the dimple in her cheek deepening as her smile widened.
“I can’t believe you beat me,” said Aidan dejectedly.
“I told you I would,” said Brianna. Then she felt bad when she saw his crestfallen face. “I’ll tell you what Aidan, tonight I will share the seat of honor with you at the big feast.”
Aidan’s face brightened and he smiled up at his sister. She leaned over and hugged him and he returned the gesture.
“That was a well run race Lady Brianna,” said Prince Relanor.
“Thank you,” said Brianna, “it was a very narrow victory and Aidan came close to winning himself. I think I got lucky.”
“That,” said Emily, “is called being modest.” She winked at Aidan who still didn’t seem to get the concept.
“Let us go prepare for the feast,” said Prince Relanor.
“I will catch up to you in a bit,” said Brianna. “I want to ride Stormhoof for a while longer.”
“As you wish Lady Brianna,” said Prince Relanor with a bow from his saddle.
The noisy crowd moved off leaving Brianna behind. She leaned down and hugged Stormhoof again.
“We did it Stormy,” said Brianna kissing the top of his head.
The stag snorted and flicked his ears.
“Let’s go!” shouted Brianna and the stag sprang into motion. They sailed across the clearing and into a thick cluster of trees and were soon lost from sight.
* * *
The races continued to be a daily event and Brianna emerged the victor more often than not. Occasionally Aidan and Leaper would pass her at the finish line and sometimes Ixdee would win, but when the children’s time among the wood elves came to an end Brianna was considered the best rider, man or elf, among all those in Moonleaf Glade.